FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Leaders from several Arizona tribes recently gathered in Phoenix to share with the Independent Redistricting Commission their desires and concerns. The group met at the Heard Museum where they were surrounded by rugs woven by their ancestors.
Leonard Gorman spoke for the Navajo Nation. He reminded the commission that they are bound under the Voting Rights Act to create a new Congressional district that represents the population. Gorman would like to see the area comprised of at least 60 percent Native Americans.
"The Navajo Nation is asking the redistricting commission to respect that number so that when the plan comes out…that we meet that 64 percent Native American population (goal)," Gorman said.
Hopi Chairman Leroy Shingoitewa was in agreement.
"We have been here a long time and we want you to understand we are citizens of the state of Arizona," Shingoitewa said.
It happens every 10 years – first comes the census, then squabbles over drawing new lines for Congressional districts. The big debate is usually over whether to carve out a minority district or spread the minorities out amongst several districts, making their political agenda more widely heard. And those redistricting debates are now being waged across the Southwest, from San Diego to San Antonio.
In northeastern Arizona, it’s surprisingly less of a squabble. For the first time in decades, the Navajo and Hopi have agreed to come together to advocate for one new Congressional district representing the tribes.
To understand the redistricting issue, it helps to go back in time.
In the 1880s, the federal government set aside more than 2 million acres in northeastern Arizona for the Hopis. Over the years, the massive Navajo reservation grew to surround the Hopis. While there were times of peace and intermarriage, encroachment eventually turned into hostility over religious sites and grazing rights.
Lomayumtewa Ishii is a Hopi historian and head of indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University. He says when the first congressional districts were drawn decades ago, it coincided with the discovery of natural resources on tribal land.
"The discovery of the richest coal beds on earth in the American Southwest influenced the political organization and how Indians were to be managed,” Ishii said. “There were large levels of uranium, coal and water."
In the mid 1960s, Peabody Energy signed separate and competing contracts with the Navajo and Hopi tribes to mine coal on their lands and pump water. During that time, the federal government prevented the Navajo and Hopi from building in contested areas until the land disputes could be resolved.
"One of the popular theories big business in cahoots with some of the tribal governments may have played a part in orchestrating a perceived conflict between Navajo and Hopis in order to get the goodies, so to speak," Ishii said.
So two decades ago, thinking they could increase their political clout, the Hopi Tribe asked to be in a separate Congressional district.
NAU political science professor Michael Lerma said this move didn’t serve them well.
"If you’re able to carve them up and put one section here and one there, you’ll create a minority voice that doesn’t have much control over the agenda," Lerma said.
But in the last few years, the Hopi and Navajo found they have more to gain by working together. The tribes have rallied to fight snowmaking out of reclaimed wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks. At least 13 tribes in the region consider the mountains sacred.
"We’re seeing allies being built in a unifying effort to stop the use of reclaimed wastewater to produce artificial snow," Ishii said.
The tribes also want a unified voice when dealing with the federal government. State senator and former Navajo President Albert Hale said the Navajo and Hopi dispute is a thing of the past.
"And I think this is evident of the fact that leadership in both tribes are willing to put this behind and do something that is for the benefit of all Indian nations within the state of Arizona," Hale said.
He looks forward to the day when a full-blooded Native American is elected to Congress. And now the chance of that happening is greater with more tribes in one district.
The Arizona Redistricting Commission will hold more meetings to listen to public comment in the coming weeks. Because of Arizona’s history of discrimination against Latinos, the final map then must be submitted to the Department of Justice for approval.